Do Cruise Ship Crew Get Free Food?

P&O Aurora Cruise Ship Docked
Image by: Rob Lilley

Passengers would always ask me if the crew got free food or if we had to pay for it.

In short, yes, cruise ship crew don’t have to pay for their food while on board. The ship covers 100% of the cost of the food and will do its best to have a variety of different foods based on the nationalities of the crew members. But, it’s definitely not as good as the passenger food by far.

Read on if you’d like to know why the crew food isn’t as good as the passenger food, when it actually IS passenger food, if the crew can get scurvy (in this day and age!), and some of the things we did as crew members to make sure we were still eating well.

Daily cost of food (DCF)

First off, to understand why our quality of food is lower, you need to know a thing or two about the Daily Cost of Food.

Both the crew (crew, staff and officers) and passengers have a daily cost of food and drink allowance allotted to them. For example, on one all-inclusive ship I was working on, I heard from the F&B (Food & Beverage) manager that each passenger had a daily allowance of $1.34 for alcohol. This means each passenger should only drink $1.34 worth of alcohol per day.

As you can imagine, some passengers drank way more than this and some drank less (or nothing). So, when averaging it out across all passengers, it comes to $1.34 roughly.

You can also help balance this out by serving lower quality (and therefore cheaper) wines and other alcoholic beverages until the numbers average out again.

The same goes for passenger food.

And the same as well for crew food.

But the difference for crew food is that the daily cost of food for crew is much lower. For example, where passengers might have $12-$15 allotted each day, the crew would only get $5/day.

I remember hearing the actual amounts, and I’ll update this once confirmed, but this is probably pretty close if not high.

For more insight about how cruise ships keep costs down, sometimes a little deceptively, you can read the upcoming article “5 ways cruise ships keep costs down at the expense of the passengers”

The lower the daily cost of food, the lower the quality of the food is

Cruise ships get a lot of their food from the ports they visit. Before each port, the F&B manager negotiates the cost of food with the brokers at the port.

Sometimes the food can be exceedingly expensive, like in one port while going through the northern tips of Norway, fruit and vegetables were 5 times the usual cost. This makes sense though as the more remote you are the more expensive food can be.

In order to still maintain the daily cost of food though, the ship had to buy the cheapest food they could.

The passengers would get the best quality apples and the crew would get lower quality ones – meaning apples that were close to their expiry date and therefore cheaper to buy. Or, no apples.

The overall result was lower quality food for the crew, potentially lacking in vitamins and minerals or other essential nutrients.

I think this is why most cruise ship crew seem to universally agree that their food on cruise ships isn’t very good.

Here’s another reason why the crew food may not be as good…

Passenger chef vs the crew chef

It stands to reason that a passenger chef, known as the Executive Chef or Chef de Cuisine, has reached this respected position through his or her acquired skill over many years, and has a proven track record of kitchen efficiency and great tasting food.

On the other hand, the crew chef or team of crew chefs are most likely still gaining experience and proficiency.

Combine this with the disadvantage of using cheaper food, and you’ll find this may be another reason the crew food isn’t as good.

Can cruise ship crew get scurvy?

As funny as this sounds nowadays, I think it’s becoming more and more possible.

Sailors of days past used to get a disease called scurvy when at sea for long periods of time. Scurvy is caused by the deficiency of vitamin C – as most vitamin C rich foods would perish quickly.

You’d think this would no longer be an issue, but you’d be surprised how the ship’s crew would sometimes lack the most basic vitamin C foods.

This became apparent to me while sailing through the Chilean Fjords, when I was fixing the hotel director’s computer one day. I noticed a memo on his desk he was sending out.

It said no more fruit was to be given to the crew as the cost of food was so high in that area. Yikes!

And low and behold, we got no fruit for a few weeks.

There were no reported cases of scurvy, but imagine if we had been sailing there longer?

So here’s one of the things we used to do in order to eat better…

Sneaking food on board

Technically, we weren’t allowed to have perishable food in our cabins as ships wage a constant war with vermin, coach roaches, and other uninvited stowaways. Makes sense.

But during times of low/no fruit or other food deficiencies, we would routinely sneak food on board in our bags, and hope we didn’t get caught.

We had small fridges in our cabins, which worked well, as long as we could hide our food before a routine or dreaded surprise inspection.

And being an officer, I kind of knew when surprise inspections were coming… 🙂

When crew members actually do eat passenger food

I know most other articles claim the crew do not eat passenger food, but there are certain times when some crew do. Here are four of those times:

  1. When there is uneaten excess passenger food that will go to waste if not eaten. This food is generally brought down to the crew mess and eaten on a “first come first served” basis. Keep in mind, this is not food scraped off of passenger plates, but just leftover food from the buffet or from the kitchen.
  2. Certain ships allow staff and officers in the officer’s mess to order from the passenger menus.
  3. Certain crew, staff and officers are able to eat at the passenger buffets or dining rooms and restaurants.
  4. Kitchen staff and waiters sneak food from the kitchen, either during or after shifts. Yep! But, this is strictly forbidden and can certainly get you fired if you’re caught.

All in all, crew food isn’t always the greatest food on board, but we certainly do find ways to make the most of the situation.

A Little About the Author...

Rob Lilley is passionate about working on cruise ships, and spent 5 years of his life travelling the seven seas and touching ground on all 7 continents.  With the experience of 2 different job positions in multiple contracts with different cruise lines, from explorer ships to full-sized cruise liners, Rob is keen to share his insider insights with all of those interested in working at sea! More…

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